Why most Turkish liberals oppose genocide resolutions

In my last entry on Rumeli Observer I shared some recent reaction to the US resolution on the Armenian genocide from Turkey. Let me share some more responses here today.  It did not take long for reactions to the most recent ESI newsletter on the Armenian-Turkish debate on 1915 to reach our mailbox. As always, these reactions included the good, the bad and the ugly: the silly/aggressive, the thoughtful/dissenting, the thoughtful/supportive and the deeply moving.

Let me share one that falls into the last category.  One Turkish reader wrote about a personal experience very much reminiscent of the story of Fethiye Cetin, the courageous lawyer of Hrant Dink:

“I got your newsletter about the Armenian issue and wanted to tell my personal experience with it. I heard lots of stories about the issue and follow the issue as a individual. My parents told me the following Story.  My grandma is saved during the “incident” in Sason, she “became” muslim and was named “Naze” and thereafter she is married to my grandpa. All her relatives probably were killed.

Once a man who was involved in killing her family was guest of my grandpa and she was supposed to server dinner to him.  We do not know anybody of her family. I sometime bump into people whose ancestors are from Sason in Germany and UK. It is a pattern of many similar stories. As I returned to Istanbul I planned to visit Hrant Dink and speak to him about my personal story and possibly contribute to Agos in some way. I was in Istanbul as he was killed. I only could join his obsequies.

I hope the whole or part of the ancestor of the Armenians and Greeks who suffered because of nationalistic nonsense, will be again a part of peaceful Anatolia one day.”

Fethiye Cetin
Fethiye Cetin, in our documentary Istanbul Truth Fear And Hope (2008)

This hope – that confronting the past will bring about a very different future – is the most important concern for Turkish liberals and most Turkish Armenians. This hope also moves Fethiye Cetin, as she explained in an excellent article in the New York Times to Dan Bilevsky earlier this year (read it if you have not yet):

““Most people in Turkish society have no idea what happened in 1915, and the Armenians they meet are introduced as monsters or villains or enemies in their history books,” she said. “Turkey has to confront the past, but before this confrontation can happen, people must know who they are confronting. So we need the borders to come down in order to have dialogue.”

And how did she deal with the issue of terminology? Dan Bilevsky writes:

“Ms. Cetin published a memoir about her grandmother in 2004. She said she purposely omitted the word “genocide” from her book because using the word erected a roadblock to reconciliation. “I wanted to concentrate on the human dimension,” she said. “I wanted to question the silence of people like my grandmother who kept their stories hidden for years, while going through the pain.”

As always, human rights activist and columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz also wrote a thoughtful article.  He explains why he both opposes the parliamentary resolutions and Turkey’s reaction:

“As I have written before, this resolution is a perfect example of political usage of human rights discourse, which is inherently in conflict with the spirit of defending human rights. It came forward with political force, and it was stopped by political force. It has no potential to contribute to anything. But the Turkish way of stopping it is deeply embarrassing.

Turks do not discuss the substance of the resolution, and they just threaten American politicians to halt its passage. All Turkish governments have done this, and this government has just followed what others did in the past. They gave a billion dollars to lobbying firms and made alliances with anyone who would support them for their “cause.” Turkish governments threatened arms manufacturers with embargos, and in return these arms dealers pressured the US government. Some see this as a strength and confirmation of the importance of Turkey. It is like silencing someone with the threat of using physical violence against someone who said to you that you are rude. It is really tragicomic.

Turks do not care how they stopped the passage of this resolution. Did we convince American congressmen that what happened in Turkey in 1915 was not genocide? No. Did we stop them by saying: “This is none of your business. We ourselves are discussing it, and we will find a peaceful way with our Armenian brothers to solve this problem, just stay out of this”? No. Everyone knows what American congressmen think about this matter, but we want them not to say what they are actually thinking. And some Turks call this “power”; for me it is just an indication of weakness, sorry.”

This is similar to an argument made by Omer Taspinar in 2008, who pointed out at the time that in the past Turkey had always failed to convince even those in the US who voted against genocide resolutions in Congress:

“The reason Ankara won the battle was because important newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times picked up the “genocide” story and humiliated the House of Representatives with columns and editorials such as the one written by Krauthammer. Yet, this was not a sight any believer in Turkey’s version enjoyed. Yes, these articles opposed the Armenian resolution. But none of them believed Turkey’s version of history about “the events of 1915.”

Turkey won an important battle but ended up losing the war. Just like Krauthammer’s, most of these articles argued that what happened in 1915 was genocide. But Turkey was geo-strategically too important an ally to offend in the middle of mayhem in the Middle East. In other words, the opposition to the genocide resolution had nothing to do with the sudden discovery of new historical facts proving correct the Turkish version of history. The discussion was only about Turkey’s geo-strategic importance and bad timing.”

Orhan Cengiz Kemal in his latest piece also underlines what, in his view, is the real priority:

“Another thing this resolution would do is to kill democratic discussion in Turkey on the Armenian question all together. Do not forget, we had an “apology campaign” last year. Including myself, more than 30,000 Turks signed the petition apologizing to Armenians for the great tragedies that happened to them while the Ottoman Empire was falling apart. We couldn’t imagine something like that happening in Turkey without some people being assassinated. Thanks to the Ergenekon case, no one was killed or hurt during this campaign.

Turkey has made serious progress since we had the first Armenian conference in 2005 at Bilgi University. This conference caused much tension and anxiety back then. However, when I looked at this week’s Turkish newspapers I was able to see at least a dozen columns encouraging Turks to confront their past.

Confronting 1915 is one of the most important and most difficult parts of the democratization of Turkey. Some would like to live with these lies officially created and protected in Turkey. Some believe if Turkey confesses what happened in the past it would be devastated. The day Turkey confronts this first “sin,” the shadow that has darkened our last hundred years will disappear. The spirit that created 1915 has never died. It has continued taking lives and sucking our blood up until today. When Turkey confronts its past not only will it serve justice but will also get rid of this ghost that wants to keep Turkey hostage forever. I wish this kind of unwise interference would not postpone Turkey’s confrontation with its past.”

The US Congress resolution – some Turkish reactions

Let my colleague Nigar Goksel and myself share some reactions to the recent US Congress resolution here. These are mainly from the Turkish press.

On 5 March 2010 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to the passing of the (non-binding resolution) in the foreign affairs committee of the US House of Representatives.  The focus of his criticism was the fact that members of the US Congress voted on a historic event that took place almost one century ago:

“This is a comedy. For God’s sake, can history be looked at like this? Is it a politician’s job to look at history? Can those who gave a ‘yes’ vote in that assembly find Armenia’s place on the map? … The decisions that are made there do not bind us. With its history, its culture, its civilization, Turkey is a very big state. This country is not a tribal state. I am saying openly, the decision of the foreign affairs committee will not hurt Turkey at all. But it will hurt countries’ bilateral relations and interests to a large degree. We will not be the ones who lose.  Those who think small will. Those who act with revenge and hostility will lose.”

The reaction of others in the government was similar, as Semih Idiz notes in his column in Milliyet newspaper on 6 March 2010:

“It was telling of the atmosphere surrounding this issue in Ankara that Murat Mercan referred to the happenings in the US Congress as ‘American comedy’ and Suat Kinikliogly said ‘we will show them that we are not a banana republic’. It is worthy of attention that when Davutoglu was asked ‘will you pull back soldiers from Afghanistan? Will you close Incirlik?’ he did not say ‘there is no need to go that far’ he said such issues would be considered, together with the opposition”

An article in Aksam newspaper (9 March 2009) has the title “They will demand land and reparations from Turkey”. It stresses another Turkish concern. It quotes an Armenian opposition politician, Giro Manoyan (ARF – the Dashnak Party):

“According to us, the current borders with Turkey are not legal. Historically, Western Armenia is ours … Armenia and Turkey have never agreed on the current borders … If Turkey will continue using Western Armenia as it does now it will have to pay for its use since 1915.”

Kadri Gursel writes in the daily Milliyet (7 March 2010) under the title “If that resolution passes no one will survive”.  This looks at possible domestic political repercussions expected by the recognition of genocide by the US:

“If the resolution passes, AKP cannot get away. To save itself AKP will sacrifice Turkey-America relations. It will do this in the name of saving Turkey’s hurt pride and for the sake of showing a harsh reaction. So if the resolution passes, Turkey-US relations cannot survive … The resolution passing in the US congress would be a breaking point. The Armenian diaspora and Armenia will have won the battle they have been waging for 10 years to get “international recognition for genocide”. And Turkey will have lost the struggle to prevent “genocide recognition.” Resolutions in other parliaments will follow. … If this resolution passes the House of Representatives, the Turkey-Armenia normalization cannot be saved. When ‘Turkeys pride’ cannot be saved, neither can the ‘democracy axis’ because extreme nationalism will rear its head. Turkey’s relations with the West cannot be saved either.”

Gursel also notes:

“Unfortunately we have to take the reckless approach of ‘If it would only pass and we could get rid of it”, which has been voiced frequently in the past few days, seriously because recklessness is contagious.”

Ismet Berkan had presented such a position in an article in Radikal a day before (on 6 March 2010) under the title “If it would only pass and we be rid of it”.  Berkan explains how in 30 years working in the media he has seen the same tensions return every year between February and April:

“I am bored of this by now. And I am sure everyone else who had to follow it for years is too. I remember the politician who told me in the 1980s ‘If it would only pass and couldn’t take Turkey-US relations hostage every year”.  If it would only pass and end….  If there was no more theatre played, pretending as if Turkey-US relations are coming to a breaking point in the first months of every year. …The solution for this issue is not preventing the resolution. The solution lies with talking about the 1915 events openly … Supposedly it was not a “genocide” but a “forced deportation”.  Ok, well, where did the Anatolian Armenians go? Did they evaporate? Did they get on rockets and move to the moon? Go to a village in Sivas and ask a villagers what happened to the Armenians. The villager will answer. Ask in Corum. In Maras. In Mus. In Bitlis. In Izmit.”

Engin Ardic explains in Sabah (6 March 2010) that the recurrent drama seems ridiculous because in the end the resolutions never pass:

“and then when it does not pass there will be screams about how we won and survived again. So if it does not pass the American Congress you are not responsible for forced deportation? … Since the US congress did not accept it, it did not happen …?  So what if they accept the resolution? Are you going to declare war to America? Are you going to get out of NATO? Boycot American goods?”

On the same day, Bugun newspaper (on 6 March 2010 lays out the “risk scenarios” and makes a list of what it describes as “the issues that make the US need Turkey.” Included in this compilation is the leverage Turkey has over fueling needs and cargo headed to US troops in Iraq, the possibility of Turkey canceling military equipment tenders, the importance of Turkey in the nuclear crisis between Turkey and the US, the risk of Turkey not supporting the process of the US pulling out of Iraq in 2011. “The US has already been informed that the protocols signed between Turkey and Armenia will not pass the Turkish parliament,” the newspaper adds before concluding, under the subheading “who would loose”: When the risk scenarios are analyzed .. it is apparent that the US also seriously needs Turkey. The base of the strategic partnership or model partnership between Turkey and the US can collapse because of the Armenian genocide resolution”.

Taha Akyol mirrors the widespread gloomy predictions on 9 March in Milliyet in his column titled “Why is the resolution important?”

“(Some people say) ‘In any case every year 1915 is referred to as ‘the tragedy’ or ‘the great catastrophe.’ So why does it matter if it is called genocide?’ It matters a lot. First, the word ‘genocide’ has been turned into such a dynamite between Turks and Armenians that it being ignited will cause great damage. The Armenians will not be satisfied and comforted. They will instead have joy over a victory and ignite even more active campaigns and policies against Turkey. And on our side there will not be the feeling that “the balloon burst and hell did not break loose’ instead there will be a huge sense of victimisation, internal and foreign policy balances will turn upside down … Not just Turkish-American relations and mutual interests but many other things will be dynamited. A political earthquake of the magnitude of 9 in the Caucasus will shake the world. There is nothing to be underestimated about the ‘genocide’ claim. “

Then he explains that the gunpowder of the word ‘genocide’ can only be moistened through the development of Turkish-Armenian relations. “Don’t those who say ‘just rip up the protocols’ see this?”

Sami Kohen writes in Milliyet on 6 March that his is a test for the Obama administration: “If he succeeds in this he will prevent a serious crisis between Turkey and the US”. But, he adds at the end “it would not be rational to get mad at the Committee decision and sever cooperation or end initiatives that are in Turkey’s national interests.”

Mehmet Ali Birand writes on 6 March 2010 in Milliyet:  “We are in such a dangerous period that, if it is not managed well, everyone in the game will lose … if it is not managed well, the genocide resolution can turn this region upside down”.

On 6 March Fehmi Koru writes in Yeni Safak under the title “America always wrongs”:

Americans are great at interfering in others’ business. The last 50 years of world history is a history of US interference in some place or another. Americans invented the most refined methods to get results by using coups, insurgencies, economic depressions, political disruption. The Armenian resolution is an example of the US habit to interfere in other countries … the negotiations that have been ongoing with Swiss mediation for the past two years have led to positive developments between Turkey and Armenia that could result in leaving the problem behind us … Washington must not loose Turkey, which is intent on solving its problems with its neighbors trade a few thousand votes in California.”

Finally, let us recommend an article by Henri J. Barkey, The Armenian genocide resolution is a farce all around, (2 March):

“The House of Representatives has decided to make a problem from the past into a problem of the present. On Thursday, the House foreign affairs committee is set to launch its fruitless annual effort to declare that the 1915 massacre of over a million Armenians by Ottoman Turks was genocide. As in the past, the resolution isn’t likely to get very far. But this year, it portends great damage to the Obama administration’s attempts to rescue a fragile Turkey-Armenia reconciliation.

To be clear, the overwhelming historical evidence demonstrates that what took place in 1915 was genocide. But while some U.S. lawmakers feel strongly about the Armenian genocide resolution, most realize that no moral good can come from a label applied almost a century later. They support the resolution only to score points with the highly organized Armenian-American lobby. And they know full well that pressure from Turkey, which remains a critical U.S. ally, ultimately will prevent passage on the House floor.

The cynicism of this effort is matched only by the cynicism of the Armenians and the Turks. For Armenians, the genocide issue is of paramount concern, and Armenian populations in Europe have even supported laws punishing Armenian genocide deniers. Yet in 2007, Yerevan State University awarded an honorary degree to the No. 1 Holocaust denier in the world: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president not only invited fellow deniers to Tehran for a “conference,” but he has systematically called for the destruction a member state of the United Nations. This clearly didn’t bother Armenian politicians who, in the interest of fostering ongoing friendly ties with neighboring Iran, decided to honor him. They must have been disappointed, though, when Ahmadinejad skipped a trip to Yerevan’s Armenian Genocide Memorial, citing important obligations in Tehran. Maybe he values his country’s relations with the Turks, or maybe he doesn’t believe there was an Armenian genocide any more than a Holocaust.

And what of the Turks? You’d think they’d be careful about throwing around a word like genocide. On the contrary, in a country where a Turkish citizen can be jailed for arguing that the Ottoman massacres were genocide, Turks will hurl that accusation at almost anyone else. The speaker of the Turkish parliament recently declared that the killing of 400 Azeris by the Armenians during the 1992 Nagorno-Karabakh war was genocide. Turkish politicians have on numerous occasions accused Israel of genocide in the occupied territories. And last year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the Chinese of committing genocide in Xinjiang, where interethnic riots killed 200 people. (He did, however, deny that the Sudanese government’s actions in Darfur were genocidal, on the grounds that “Muslims do not commit genocide.”)

The Turks, Armenians and the United States all dilute the meaning of the word genocide by playing politics with it. But the U.S. alone has the power to help broker an agreement that would make a meaningful difference in Armenians’ lives, by ending their economic isolation.

The Obama administration has been pushing for a deal that would normalize Turkish-Armenian relations and open the borders between them. Realizing the delicacy of the situation, Obama made a point to avoid “genocide” in his April 2009 statement commemorating the start of the massacres, instead using the Armenian expression “Great Catastrophe.” Unfortunately, Turkish leaders have shown signs of cold feet. And further antagonism would undoubtedly set back the process for years.

With that in mind, the U.S. Congress should drop its annual Armenian genocide resolution. And lawmakers worried about responding to Armenian-American constituents should focus their efforts on helping to mediate a reconciliation that would benefit Armenians. It’d be better if they used their power to end ongoing fights than to pick old ones.”

More to come …

What is really wrong with Bosnia?

A few weeks ago I wrote on this website that “recently, some people have argued that there is a possibility of a new violent conflict in the Western Balkans”. Let me be more specific here.

Today I was sent an article by Bodo Weber and Kurt Bassuener. There they argue that “Bosnia is backsliding into political chaos and possibly even renewed ethnic violence.” The tone of the whole article is deeply alarmist: “international disarray”, “debacle”, “potential break-up of the country”, “resounding failure.” It is an argument they have made many more times elsewhere in recent months, as can be seen on the website of their think tank.

Travnik is peaceful today, but according to some Bosnia remains a powderkeg

What do the authors suggest should be done about this state of affairs? They make the following concrete proposals:

  • keep the Office of the High Representative (OHR) intact and preserve its powers until there is a “new and functional constitutional order” (this is not defined); separate it from the EUSR
  • the EU should help “reshuffle the deck through the October 2010 elections” (they do not specify in whose favor)
  • the EU should “facilitate substantial constitutional reform”
  • there should be a shift in US policy, which “would have to occur at the cabinet level, even undertaken by President Obama himself”
  • and the US should send a special envoy for the Balkans

This raises many questions. How exactly is the EU to “reshuffle the deck”? Is OHR needed to keep Bosnia from falling apart, to push for a new constitution or both? What does substantial constitutional reform look like? And what would a US envoy do that a US ambassador cannot?

There is also a question of realpolitik: why – given current challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Iraq and Iran, in Yemen, Columbia, Israel or Haiti – should President Obama himself become interested in a country that has largely demilitarised, has seen no serious incidents of interethnic violence for a decade, has a population one fourth the size of Karachi, and is today surrounded by two neighbours, Serbia and Croatia, which – instead of planning its partition, as they did in 1991 – are committed to their own Western integration?

Vice-president Biden recently visited Bosnia and reaffirmed a US commitment to Bosnian statehood. This was a useful signal. Should Biden visit again? Is any international strategy which relies on an increase in US interest, a willingness to take on Russia and to push aside the EU in Bosnia, realistic? To put this in perspective, it is perhaps useful to look across the US’ southern Border to Mexico. As a recent NYT article noted:

“Although Mexico has been a producer and transit route for illegal drugs for generations, the country now finds itself in a pitched battle with powerful and well-financed drug cartels. In 2008, there were more than 6,200 drug-related murders, more than double the figure from the year before. Top police commanders have been assassinated and grenades thrown, in one case into the crowd at an Independence Day celebration … While Mr. Calderon dismisses suggestions that Mexico is a failed state, he and his aides have spoken frankly of the cartels’ attempts to set up a state within a state, levying taxes, throwing up roadblocks and enforcing their own perverse codes of behavior. The Mexican government has identified 233 “zones of impunity” across the country, where crime is largely uncontrolled, a figure that is down from 2,204 zones a year ago.” (NYT October 2009)

Mexico’s current problems concern the US directly. By comparison, the problems of Bosnia are both manageable and distant. Observers sometimes losely talk about Bosnia today as a failed state, but there are few facts to back this up. Crime rates, as I have shown on this site before, are low even by European standards. Life expectancy is relatively high. Child mortality rates are too high by comparison to Austria or even Croatia, but lower than in Romania or Turkey (see below).

Slavko Lovric
Slavko Lovric, a Bosnian Croat who returned after the war, later became chief of police in Travnik

Bosnia has regular elections. There have been alternations in power at every level of government. The police does not torture, people feel save going out at night, the military does not intervene in politics, and there is full freedom of movement throughout the country. By comparison with Turkey (where thousands of minors are in prison based on draconian anti-terror legislation and where journalists all too often find themselves in court) Bosnia is doing well when it comes to meeting the Copenhagen human rights criteria. This is not to say that Bosnia does not have problems, but it is an argument to put these problems in perspective.






































Deaths / 1,000 life births

































Bosnia is failing today most conspicuously by comparison to its (West) European EU neighbours. It has unacceptably high unemployment rates. There are a lot of political tensions (more on those in a later entry). There is widespread pessimism and deep frustration among the population. Bosnia’s leaders are not doing enough to close the prosperity gap even with Croatia and the current pace of reform means that Bosnia will not catch up (or join the EU) for another generation.

All this should concern Europeans, as – and here I fully agree with Kurt and Bodo – the EU’s credibility is at stake in the Balkans. The EU can ill afford a ghetto of backwardness. I would even argue that it owes Bosnians, given its disastrous failures in the 1990s. The Balkans should become as stable as Central Europe, and the road to get there is still long. But does this make Bosnia a priority issue for the US?

Imam in Sevarlije
A Bosnian imam in Republika Srpska –
the village and the mosque had been destroyed during the war

This is where the rhetoric of a looming threat, abstract warnings about possible large-scale violence in Bosnia, becomes important and the temptation arises to play up such threats, whatever the potential costs to Bosnia’s image, investor confidence, or its EU aspirations. Perhaps, some might argue, fear of a new war – and memories of the slaughterhouse Bosnia had become from 1992 to 1995 – will make a busy US president focus on Bosnia again after all?

But what if this threat does not actually exist? What if the real worst case scenario is the one Daniel Korski recently described as Bosnia stagnating, with all its current problems, to the general indifference of the outside world, both the US and the EU? This would be bad for Bosnians, bad for the Balkan region and bad for the EU. It might even lead to new tensions one day which are not yet visible. But it is hardly a matter over which a US president would lose much sleep today.

(Skeptics might also point out that even the personal involvement of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in 2006 did not prevent the April Constitutional Reform Package, a US inspired draft, from being rejected … and that it was brought down as a result of the votes in parliament of the party led by a man, Haris Silajdzic, who had long put his trust in a stronger US role. Why would this be different the next time around?)

The structure of the Bosnian stateEveryone agrees that there needs to be constitutional reform to join the EU –
the question is how

The notion that Bosnia needs constitutional reform to catch up with its more advanced neighbours is, on the other hand, compelling and largely beyond doubt. The hard question is how to get there. Essentially there are two ways forward. One is to impose it. The other is for Bosnia’s leaders to agree to it.

Do Kurt and Bodo propose to impose constitutional change? For if they do not (and I am not sure) we might not be so far apart in our proposals. ESI has, some years ago, written two papers on what is wrong about the current constitutional debate in Bosnia:

We never believed that what we proposed here is a master plan for solving Bosnia’s constitutional problems, only that the question – how do you get Bosnian leaders to agree to serious changes that actually make a difference – must be the starting point for any serious reflection.

This is where Kurt, Bodo and many US analysts on the one hand and most of the leaders in today’s European Union on the other part company. While everyone agrees on the need for constitutional change in Bosnia, leaders like Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt argue that this is much easier to achieve in the context of a serious EU accession process than outside of it. It is not going to be achieved by inventing criteria for Bosnia which no other candidate had to meet. This did not work with police reform in 2007, when the EU risked its credibility by inventing specific “European standards of policing” which simply did not exist (and its Bosnian counterparts knew it as well as the European Commission).

This does not mean that any progress is guaranteed, even if there is a credible offer of EU candidate status or of opening accession negotiations. The door can be wide open: it is still Bosnian politicians who must agree among each other to walk through it. But there are powerful incentives and one could see them at work even recently.

Sometimes – as in the surprising story of Bosnia’s visa reform effort – these incentives are the result of concrete and immediate benefits the EU can offer. But they are also related to wider regional dynamics.

Most Bosniaks (or Bosnian citizens identifying with their multinational state) would (rightly) hate to see Bosnia fall behind its Serbian neighbour on the road to the EU. But so would most Bosnian Serbs. There is thus a lot of benefit in a healthy regional competition when it comes to EU accession. What this requires is that this competition is organised in a manner that is fair and transparent. Above all it requires that all countries take part in the race for the race to begin. But more on this later.

In the meantime, if you are interested in following a debate on Bosnia between Daniel Korski (from ECFR), Kurt and myself – and see how Kurt answers some questions which I posed to him on these issues – go here, to the ECFR website.

Further reading: my contribution to the ECFR Bosnia debate today

Dear Daniel,

I do not know where to start: Bosnia’s problems do not lend themselves to solutions that can be formulated in four paragraphs. But let me try and use this opportunity to get Kurt, and others who share his vision of Bosnia’s problems, to explain in more detail what it is that the rest of us are missing.

Central to Kurt’s argument is the claim that “Bosnia is backsliding into political chaos and possibly even renewed ethnic conflict” (as he writes in an essay I read today) and that the risk of a return to armed conflict can “no longer be excluded”.

Who does he expect to pick up arms? Which Bosnian leader would contemplate this today? What is the scenario for such an escalation? Does Kurt know things that EU military observers, who have reduced EUFOR to an almost negligable size and do not feel guilty of irresponsibility, miss?

Please be concrete: which leader in Bosnia do you suspect is contemplating the use of armed force and a “renewed ethnic conflict”? Which group do you believe is ready to return to war? Without answering the question of what the real threat is, it is hard to confront it.

After all, to say that Bosnia is a country on the verge of disintegration is not a minor thing. If foreign or domestic investors would believe Kurt, they should rethink any future investment. Failing states also do not make credible candidates for EU accession. Most importantly, if the EU would believe Kurt, the debate about OHR would be a sideshow, a dangerous diversion even, from the real burning issues. No OHR-type mandate would have stopped Bosnia sliding into war in 1992 by “dismissing” Radovan Karadzic from his position as Serb leader. For this force was needed. So if there is a real threat of armed conflict then the urgent priority would be to send substantially more foreign soldiers to prevent another tragedy from happening.

I do not believe that there is any such threat, and as a result I believe it is deeply irresponsible to keep on talking in vague terms about it. This damages Bosnia on so many levels. But I hope Kurt will go beyond referring to “popular fears” to tell us why he thinks this risk, which he argues did not exist in 2006, when Kostuncia was leader in Belgrade, exists today.

Perhaps the EU could do a better job spelling out that Bosnia will never be allowed to fall apart, even if this is obvious to any European policy maker. There are then two obvious points to make: first, any Bosnian politician calling on people to pick up weapons again would be treated as a criminal, not as a political interlocutor. The first one who orders somebody to shot would end up in a European jail, with no place to hide. Second, an independent RS would be as miserable a place as Transdnistria, or Abchazia without Russian help. The EU has not recognized Northern Cyprus in decades, and it never will. It will never recognize any alternative to the current Bosnian state. As I said, this may be obvious but sometimes the obvious benefits from being restated.

My second question to Kurt concerns his vision of a “new and functional constitutional order”: what is this exactly? This is not, after all, a debate that started today. Is it the implementation of the April 2006 package of constitutional changes? Is it going further than the April package, towards abolishing the entities and the cantons? Or is it about turning the entities into mere administrative units, with no real autonomy?

Is a functioning Bosnia similar to today’s Belgium (a highly decentralized federal state)? Or to the Cyprus of the Annan plan (an even more decentralized state), which would have entered the EU in 2004, if the Annan plan would have been accepted? Is there a future for a complicated Federation inside the Bosnian federation in Kurt’s “functional constitutional order”? Is there room in it for a semi-autonomous Brcko district? Would this Bosnia still be a federal state?

These are not rhetorical questions. I accept Kurt’s argument that there is a lot that is dysfunctional about Bosnia’s current constitutional set up. Things have to change profoundly, in the interests of Bosnian citizens and in light of Bosnia’s EU aspirations. But how does he see this being helped by a continued OHR presence? To do what: Impose constitutional change by decree? Threaten politicians who do not accept certain reforms (with sanctions or dismissal)?

I could now sum up the conclusions I draw from my answers to these questions. But let me first get Kurt to try to change my mind (and, more importantly, that of most EU policy makers who do not share his threat assessment) about the concrete threats which he sees; realistic scenarios for a return to armed conflict; about the core features of a “functional constitutional order” and about the role of a strong OHR to promote constitutional changes.

Harvard presentation on Turkey’s dark side and the Ergenekon case

Today I will give a presentation at the Kennedy School on an issue that has become ever more interesting in recent weeks: what is happening in Turkey currently in the field of civil-military relations? For more details please go here.

Turkey’s current transformation – in particular concerning the changing role of the Armed Forces – needs to be put in a wider context, both global and European.

As I noted in the seminar here last week it is not long ago that military interventions in politics were everything but rare. In 1962 successful coups took place in Burma, Argentina and Syria; failed coups in Lebanon, Portugal, Venezuela and Turkey. The Times noted in 1960, following the first Turkish coup against an elected civilian government, that “this has been a good year for generals.”

Since the 1960s the Turkish military has been carrying out many more interventions. However, while the officer corps has remained isolated from wider changes in Europe as well as in Turkish society the international acceptance of any military intervention has declined significantly – in Europe it has now reached a point of zero tolerance.

the man on horseback ruling but not governing
Recommended Reading

A good book for a historical perspective is Samuel Finer’s The Man on Horseback – The Role of the Military in Politics, published in the 1960s. Finer tries to quantify military interventions: he examines the 76 independent states which existed in the world in 1955 and finds that there had been military interventions in 47 of them.

Finer’s table: states and military interventions:

before 1861 46 states in the world military intervention in 26
1861-1899 2 more states (Serbia/Bulgaria) military interventions in 2
1900-1917 3 more states military interventions in all 3
1918-1944 10 more states military interventions in 7
1945-1955 15 more states military interventions in 9

A second interesting book focusing on Turkey is Gareth Jenkins’ Context and Circumstance: The Turkish Military and Politics. It appeared as an Adelphi Paper, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2001. While I find Gareth Jenkins writings on the Ergenekon trial unconvincing and at times misleading – more on this here later – his text on the Turkish military is a very good introduction.

Jenkins sets out the structural features and ideological motivations and historical references that have set Turkey’s civil-military relations apart from those elsewhere in Europe. As Jenkins notes at the very outset, his book wants to explain, not judge, an exceptional situation:

“the continued domination of Turkish politics by the country’s military appears to be an anomalous anachronism, even an anathema. As a result, discussions of civil-military relations often become coloured by moral judgements as military involvement in politics is seen as not only undesireable but almost an affront to a natural order. The purpose of this paper is neither to condemn not to justify the Turkish military’s involvement in politics; merely to try to understand and explain.” (p5, emphasis added)

At the heart of the Turkish exception is the ideological nature of the Armed Forces’ commitment:

“But what makes the Turkish military unique is that it sees itself as having an almost sacred duty to protect an indigenous ideology, namely Kemalism, the principles laid down by the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk. This ideological dimension to the military’s perception of its role has meant that its definition of security extends beyond public order and Turkey’s political or economic interests to include threats to the country’s Kemalist legacy.”

Central to the world-view of the Turkish officer is the sense that both external and internal threats have enduring roots in Turkey’s past. An important element of military education is the Nutuk speech made by Ataturk, in which Ataturk describes Turkey’s enemies during the War of Liberation (1919-1922):

“Ataturk’s Great Speech of October 1927, the Nutuk, in which he summarised the Turkish War of Liberation, has a position akin to a sacred book and his pronouncements on a vast range of subjects are cited to support arguments as if they were virtual holy writ.” (p 32)

Jenkins notes that this is true not only for the Armed Forces but pervasive in Turkish society and in its national education system:

“Turks are taught, and most believe, that their country is under continual external and internal threat, both from other countries plotting to divide or acquire Turkish territory and from internal forces seeking to change the constitutional status quo. The result is often a virtual siege mentality, riddled with impossibly intricate conspiracy theories.”

“Turkish schoolchildren are taught that the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which, though never ratified and subsequently superseded by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, foresaw the allocation of large tracts of modern Turkey to Greece, Armenia, Italy and France (the latter two in the form of mandates), and the eventual creation of an independent Kurdish state, still represents the real intentions of the West towards Turkey.” (pp16, 17)

However, such views are particularly strongly represented among those who pursue a military career, where they form the core of the curriculum:

“The teaching of history in the military academies places considerable emphasis on the foundation of the Turkish Republic. Cadets are taught that the Ottoman Empire was eroded by a combination of foreign avarice and a paucity of patriots prepared to defend the homeland. (p 32)

In January 1999 the military academy in Ankara published a booklet calling for a second ‘War of Liberation’ against Islamic fundamentalism:

“Continual exhortations to identify with Ataturk and to see him as an immortal guiding presence effectively brings the past into the present. Indeed, cadets are explicitly taught that, although circumstances and methods may change, the external and internal threats to the country – threats which they are legally as well as morally obliged to repulse – are fundamentally the same as in Ataturk’s lifetime … international pressure to allow greater political pluralism appears reminiscent of Allied attempts to divide Turkey at Sevres.” (p 33)

Jenkins quotes General Nahgit Senoglu, the head of the Military Academies, who told the new intake of cadets in 2000:

“You will see that Turkey has the most internal and external enemies of any country in the world. You will learn about the dirty aspirations of those who hide behind values such as democracy and human rights and who want to take revenge on the republic of Ataturk.”

Such as threat perception also serves to legitimise the privileged position of the Armed Forces:

“The military’s role is further bolstered by public perceptions of the security environment, where external and internal threats are often inflated and distorted by conspiracy theories in which even Turkey’s NATO allies are secretly plotting to weaken and divide the country.1 In such a situation, it is to the military that most Turks turn […] .”(P 9)

Being educated as a military officer also includes other messages, writes Gareth Jenkins,

“From the moment that they enter the military academies officer cadets are told that they are joining an elite, […] with a sacred mission to protect Kemalism.” (p30)

Jenkins explains that the “strict military hierarchy starts in the military high schools and academies”, and even underlines that “military officials admit that the hierarchies and deference to authority in Turkish society, particularly within the family, play a significant role in enabling cadets to adapt to a military environment.” The “relative social isolation of the academies and the inculcation of a sense of being distinct from society at large inevitably combine to produce an increasing identification with their fellow cadets and the armed forces as an institution.” (p 30)

Jenkins writes that the Turkish military has “traditionally vigorously resisted any attempt by the civilian authorities to investigate allegations against serving or retired officers.” (p 29), refusing to

“cooperate with investigations into, allegations of corruption or human rights abuses involving members of the security forces, especially the gendarmerie, apparently because it believes that even an investigation would harm the image of the armed forces. For example, in spring 1997 the TGS refused to allow a parliamentary committee investigating allegations of collaboration between elements in the security apparatus and the Turkish underworld to question members of the gendarmerie. Similarly, it has refused to allow external investigations of allegations of the use of beatings, usually by NCOs or lower-ranking officers, to discipline conscripts, insisting that such cases must remain the exclusive prerogative of the military courts. (p 30)

(To read more or to order the book go here).

Finally, let me recommend one more thought-provoking book: Steven A. Cook’s Ruling but not Governing on militaries in Egypt, Turkey and Algeria, published in 2007.

Cook examines what he calls “authoritarian stability” in “military-dominated states”. In such systems democratic facades allowed officers to rule without having to govern. Cook notes that in Turkey for a long time “pseudodemocratic institutions give the military the respect and admiration of large majorities of the Turkish people. Although the officers are responsible for the political order, the presence of institutions resembling a democratic polity effectively shields them from any public dissatisfaction.” (p.106)

Cook quotes a Turkish officer telling Mehmet Ali Birand:

“We are opposed to anybody, no matter whether they are there by the grace of the ballot box or the votes of the National Assembly, who attempts to violate Ataturk’s principles. We have a right to act to this end in the interests of our own people, and for their protection.” (p 102)

He examines how “Turkey has been able to undertake an extraordinary and wide-ranging program to dismantle its authoritarian institutions” in recent years, a transformation he considers “extraordinary”: while changes to the structure of the National Security Council in 2001 were still cosmetic, by 2004 they significantly downgraded the formal power of the military to influence civilian decision making. So did other changes, including a constitutional amendment in 2004 that rescinded the military’s exemption from Court of Auditors’ oversight.

In this transformation the role of the EU is decisive. Cook wonders whether there are any general lessons in this, but does not elaborate:

“It is fashionable, particularly among Arab elites, to say that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside, but the lessons of EU-Turkey relations indicate that the United States and France can play a role facilitating conditions more conducive to democratic change in Egypt and Algeria. … “

Cook rightly underlines that the Internal Service Act (1961) remains intact, including article 85 which states that the “Armed Forces shall defend the country against internal as well as external threats, if necessary by force.” This is but one sign that Turkey’s democratic revolution is not yet complete. He lists the following institutional innovations as essential:

  • to subordinate the General Staff to a civilian minister of defence
  • to empower the Council of State and other parts of the judicial branch to overrule the Supreme Military Council
  • to overhaul the internal service codes of the armed forces, which justify the military’s intervention in politics
  • to alter the curriculum at military academies and staff colleges

I would add a few additional concrete steps to this essential list, including:

  • to clarify the limitations of the military judicial system
  • to finally implement Turkey’s commitment to allow conscientious objectors to do alternative service
  • to undertake the full regular auditing of military expenditures in line with the 2004 constitutional amendments

I share Cook’s fascination for Turkey’s recent transformation and his assuymption that it holds a lot of interesting lessons. He concludes on an optimistic note: even in the Middle East

“countries with authoritarian political systems are not necessarily fated to manifest nondemocratic politics in perpetuity – forever is, after all, a long time … the Turkish transition highlights how external actors can nurture a political environment more conducive to peaceful, democratic change.”

This is an issue I hope to explore more with my students in the seminar on intervention in coming weeks.

Further reading: